This Woman, This Man 
by George Sand, translated by Graham Anderson.
Dedalus, 259 pp., £9.99, September 2022, 978 1 912868 81 0
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This Was the Man 
by Louise Colet, translated by Graham Anderson.
Dedalus, 416 pp., £11.99, September 2022, 978 1 912868 80 3
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Alfredde Musset and George Sand first met in 1833, though the exact date is disputed – maybe as early as March, maybe as late as June, depending on which source you consult. Perhaps it was at a dinner organised by Florestan Bonnaire, a young lawyer associated with the Revue des deux mondes, or at the restaurant Trois Frères Provençaux. We know that in March the critic Sainte-Beuve had suggested that Sand meet Musset, but she wasn’t keen, saying he seemed ‘trop dandy’ for her taste. Yet the two did find themselves seated next to each other. Musset’s brother Paul wrote a not entirely trustworthy memoir many years later in which he said the first thing they talked about was the dagger Sand was wearing, Byronically, at her waist. Musset asked her what it was for, and she explained that she used it for protection when she travelled, adding that she often dressed like a man for the same reason. Musset was captivated.

In May, they had pieces published side by side in the Revue des deux mondes – Musset’s play Les Caprices de Marianne and an instalment from Sand’s novel Lélia. She was 29, recently arrived in Paris and liberated (though not yet divorced) from her husband, Casimir Dudevant. Her affair with Jules Sandeau had ended, a one-night fling with Prosper Mérimée had been a catastrophe, and she was in a relationship with the actress Marie Dorval when she asked Sainte-Beuve to arrange for her to meet eligible authors. She had published three novels, all of them under the name George Sand (borrowing a syllable from Sandeau), which the former Amantine Dupin de Francueil was now also using socially. Indiana, which came out in 1832, was filled to bursting with melodrama, mulattos and misbegotten marriages. Rapturous reviews appeared in every paper and feuilleton, and sales were enormous. It’s hard today to recapture the effect this sometimes masterful, sometimes tedious book must have had, but the word that kept coming up was ‘modern’. The narrative was just transgressive enough, in its suggestion that marriage might do a woman more harm than good, and just conventional enough, in its dialogue and characterisation, to appeal to a wide public. Sand carefully cultivated a transgressive edge in her own life, and the talk about her affairs, her bisexuality, her cross-dressing added a great deal to her popularity as a writer. Lélia, the novel being serialised in 1833, was less plot-driven and more philosophical, with a diverse set of characters each of whom stood for a particular sin or obsession. Talky though it is, it was an even bigger hit than Indiana, because readers thought they could discern real-life models for the characters. They assumed that the sexually liberated Lélia (the exotic name is adapted from Byron’s The Giaour) was a self-portrait. The identification was a lasting one: André Maurois’s biography of Sand is titled Lélia.

When they met, Musset was 23. The performance of his first play, La Nuit vénitienne, had been a fiasco: at one point the curtain got stuck, and at another the lead actress innocently leaned against a freshly painted prop, so when she turned round the audience howled at the green stripes across her skirt. His poetry, however, was finding a more respectful audience. In the last days of 1832 he published Un spectacle dans un fauteuil (armchair theatre – plays to be read rather than performed), and though several reviews were unkind, Sainte-Beuve championed him. In his teens Musset had discovered alcohol and brothels, and by 1833 the two vices had given him a reputation. But Sand found the tall, slim Musset, with his fashionably dishevelled blond hair, more agreeable than she had expected.

He wrote poems for her, one praising Indiana, and sent her sketches. There was no talk of love. On the contrary, he told her how fine a thing it was that they could be friends with no danger of falling in love – when it comes to love, he wrote, there’s a whole Baltic Sea between us. This was written on 24 July. In one of the century’s finest volte-faces, the very next day he wrote: ‘My dear Georges, I have something stupid and ridiculous to tell you … I’m in love with you.’* And after some hesitation on Sand’s part, their affair began. Somewhat scandalously, he moved into her apartment on the quai Malaquais. Her two children lived there too, and the rhetoric the lovers used echoed the mother-child relation. ‘I love you like a child, Georges,’ he wrote; she addressed him as ‘dear child’.

Things went well for a while, and Musset later described their first few months together as the happiest time in his life; he seemed to have left his vices behind. In August, they decided to get out of the city and headed to Fontainebleau. But Musset’s underlying instability became clear one night when he had a horrifying hallucination (not his first), believing he saw himself running past as a hideously deformed old man and hearing obscene voices. He also began to have trouble controlling his jealousy. In December, the couple decided to go to Venice – where the high drama of their affair took place. They settled into the Danieli, with its fine view of Santa Maria della Salute, but things deteriorated quickly. Sand came down with dysentery, and Musset was less than understanding: dysentery is most unromantic. When she recovered, she announced that she planned to concentrate on her writing – an advance on her next novel had paid for the trip – and advised him to do the same. He tried, writing some of the superb poems in the sequence Les Nuits, but quickly grew restless, and began going out without her, slipping into his old habits with alcohol and women. One morning he returned home bloodied from a bar-room brawl. He began mocking Sand for being bourgeois, for lacking a sense of adventure, for being insufficiently in love. Eventually he declared, in grand style, that he had come to the conclusion that he no longer loved her. Things had nearly reached a definitive breaking point when Musset fell ill. The illness was real, but his behaviour – as described by himself and by others – looked like Romantic Weltschmerz degenerating into hysteria. Werther seemed to be hovering just offstage throughout his life.

He experienced hallucinations during his fever – or were they? Sand had engaged the services of a young Venetian doctor called Pietro Pagello, a handsome man of 26, and one day Musset thought he saw her sitting on the doctor’s lap. The sight tormented him. On another occasion he thought he saw the two of them drinking out of the same cup. What bothered him most, he said later, was not just that she had been unfaithful, but that she had been unfaithful while he was mortally ill. Sand eventually admitted the affair and tried – with some success – to encourage a friendship between Pagello and Musset. After many scenes and a great deal of suffering on Musset’s part – some of which reads like posturing, but was probably sincere – he agreed to return to Paris on his own, leaving Sand with the doctor. The Musset-Sand affair dragged on for some time, but within a year Sand had moved on, though Musset continued to make himself miserable over the loss of his perfect love for the rest of his life.

In 1834, he told her he was thinking of writing a novel about their affair, assuring her that it would be discreet and heavily fictionalised. A year later, what would become the second chapter of the finished book appeared in the Revue des deux mondes. This fragment wasn’t scandalous at all, and wasn’t even very personal: Musset attributes his own struggles and unhappiness to the era. The ‘mal du siècle’, he says, is an infection that entered people’s hearts as a result of the debacles of 1793 and 1814. In the finished novel, Confession d’un enfant du siècle, which was published the following year, Sand is, as promised, almost unrecognisable. Octave discovers Brigitte, a young widow, living like Snow White in a forest, the emblem of chastity and moral goodness. Their idyll is destroyed by his insecurity and jealousy. One day Smith, an old friend from Brigitte’s home town, shows up and Octave begins to suspect she’s being unfaithful – this is Musset’s version of the Dr Pagello story, complete with an episode involving a shared drinking cup. Octave and Brigitte end their relationship. The story puts all the blame on Octave.

Sand published her own novelised version of the story, Elle et lui, much later, in 1859 – two years after Musset’s death. It’s not among her best, or even second-best, works, but as an act of vengeance and an epic of self-justification it excels. Musset had sunk further into alcoholism and debauchery, and Sand had become increasingly resentful that she had bestowed so much time and emotion on him. She sticks more closely to the actual events than Musset had, and the two principals, painters called Thérèse and Laurent, are much more readily identifiable. She sent the manuscript to François Buloz, the editor of the Revue des deux mondes, who urged her to revise and soften it. When she refused, he held onto it for several months before giving in and serialising it. It instantly became the talk of Paris. The book vilifies Musset as spoiled, narcissistic, cruel and a liar. ‘It was difficult to know,’ Thérèse thinks after the hallucination at Fontainebleau, ‘when Laurent talked like this, if he was relating a thing he had actually experienced, or if he had muddled together in his brain an allegory born of his bitter reflections.’ They go to Italy, though to Florence and Genoa, not Venice, where Laurent’s sarcasm and cruelty grow even worse; she stays at home painting while he goes out drinking and gambling. One day he arrives back bedraggled and bloody from a fight, ‘so frightening to look at and listen to that Thérèse felt all her love turn to disgust’. In a softer mood, she attributes his problems to the ‘bad path’ he had taken in his first years in Paris.

Thérèse’s weaknesses only underline her virtues: ‘She needed to love, and her greatest misfortune was that she needed to love in a gentle, self-denying manner, to satisfy at all costs the maternal impulse which was seemingly a fated part of her nature and her life.’ She seems to be fated to endure every man she knows falling troublesomely in love with her. It happens with an American, Dick Palmer, hitherto a picture of rationality, controlled emotions and perfect benevolence. When Laurent falls seriously ill in Florence, Palmer can no longer hide his feelings, and proposes to her. She accepts, and they plan to get married in America. But Palmer, too, grows irrationally jealous and anxious, and she eventually dismisses him and moves, with her child, to an obscure country retreat in Germany. ‘God will forgive you for not having been able to love!’ she writes to Laurent.

The novel’s treatment of Musset and the self-satisfied portrait of Thérèse/Sand divided readers. The first to leap to the defence of Musset’s memory was his brother Paul. Within six months, he had published a fiercely satirical response entitled Lui et elle, in which the poles of Sand’s novel were reversed: Edouard is a composer of true genius and fine sensibility, who gets involved with a not very talented singer called Olympe. His treatment of Olympe was even more savage than Sand’s treatment of Laurent. Paul de Musset’s book is of some interest not because of its literary merit but because of his knowledge of his brother’s habits and ways of thinking; he later wrote a full biography of Alfred, which remains worth consulting.

A final novel tells the story from another angle. Musset had met Louise Colet briefly in 1836, but when he encountered her again in 1852, his alcoholism having by now ruined his health and looks, he began to court her. She was trying to remain committed to her current lover, the as yet unknown Gustave Flaubert, who was writing to her almost daily as he drafted Madame Bovary, letters that included endlessly quoted dicta such as ‘the artist in the work should be like God in the universe: present everywhere, but visible nowhere.’ By the 20th century, Flaubert had become an object of near worship, but Colet was, as she often still is, belittled and even mocked by scholars and biographers – just as Flaubert mocked her to his friends. She is remembered as the foolishly impassioned woman who came to his family home in Rouen desperate to see him, only to be locked out. Curtis Cate, one of Sand’s biographers, describes her as ‘a pushy femme de lettres who had managed to seduce and then harried an increasingly reluctant Gustave Flaubert before concentrating her amorous attention on Alfred de Musset’. This is a pretty common view of Colet, but it’s wrong on all counts.

Louise Colet

To begin with, Colet was an established writer when she met Flaubert, her junior by eleven years: she had already published a number of collections of verse and prose, and had won the Académie Française’s annual poetry award twice. When they met, in the studio of the sculptor James Pradier, he had published nothing. (Pradier sculpted her repeatedly. Two of the sculptures were widely reproduced and can still be purchased today; one is called Sappho, the other Louise Colet.) She was well-known, too, in more sensational ways: when a journalist published a piece claiming her child was not her husband’s, she went to his house and attacked him with a knife (the journalist, Alphonse Karr, had the knife framed). The affair with Flaubert, which began in the summer of 1846, was always intermittent; the two rarely spent more than a few days at a time together. It cooled off completely when Flaubert and Maxime du Camp made their lengthy trip to Egypt in 1849, but resumed on his return. Soon afterwards he began drafting Madame Bovary, writing Colet some 250 letters. He later destroyed her side of the correspondence, so we can only guess how much influence she had on his thinking – perhaps none, perhaps a great deal.

Flaubert burrowed down in Rouen as he worked on the book, rebuffing her constant pleas to see him. They did meet occasionally, in Paris or in Mantes-la-Jolie, but his house in Rouen – where he lived with his mother – was sacrosanct. This was her situation in 1852, when Musset began writing poems to her and doing his best to seduce her. His drinking repelled her (absinthe was his preference), and he periodically tried to give it up, sometimes succeeding for days or weeks at a time. She struggled between her attraction to the insistent Musset and her loyalty to the literally and metaphorically distant Flaubert.

Late one evening in June 1852, she was in a cab with Musset when he began to assault her. She threatened to jump out of the cab if he continued. He didn’t stop, and so she tumbled out onto the cobblestones of the place du Carrousel. Her knees and her dress suffered, but she escaped serious injury. She rushed off to hide, while the cab driver and a chastened Musset searched for her. As she told the story, the driver found her and offered to go back and thrash the gentleman, but she asked him to leave her alone and made her way home on foot. She wrote to tell Flaubert what had happened, but his reply offered little sympathy, dealing instead with Musset’s limitations as a poet, and moving from there to an analysis of his own artistic character. It’s a fascinating letter for the Flaubert scholar, but Colet must have found it a frustrating response from a man who claimed to be in love with her.

For a time after that, she didn’t allow Musset to see her alone, though he came to her house every day apologising abjectly, but she did continue the friendship. Like Sand, she spoke of him often as a child, and worried about his health as he grew increasingly weak. She undoubtedly shared the opinion Sand expresses in Elle et lui, that artists need to be forgiven more readily than others, being subject to ‘more sudden enthusiasms’ and stronger fits of passion. Such an opinion is a harder sell today. Colet’s relationship with Flaubert sputtered to an end in 1854, though he didn’t write breaking it off until March 1855. She had gone to his apartment in Paris, and he wrote saying that she would never find him in. Musset died in May 1857, a month after Madame Bovary came out in book form. Two years later, as Sand was serialising Elle et lui, Colet began readying her own version of the story, Lui, which came out in August 1859.

Colet’sversion is the most sympathetic to Musset. The long middle section of the novel is told in his voice, and he seems more real, more like a person one might have met, than in any of the other versions, including his own. Scene after scene feels credible, ranging from major events – the Venetian affair, the hallucination in the forest of Fontainebleau – to minor details: at one point, Musset is annoyed at her loyalty to this unknown lover somewhere in the provinces who claims to be writing a great novel. Chances are he’ll never finish it, he says, and if he does, it’ll be just another imitation of Balzac. Many remarks made by the Musset character sound like things the real Musset might have said to Colet; especially interesting is what he says about the hallucinations he has experienced, which he describes as ‘visions’.

Colet’s novel also includes her own experiences with Musset, such as the assault in the cab, which is narrated with real power, and expresses her frustration with the man she really loves, Léonce (Flaubert). After reading Léonce’s letter about the cab episode, she wonders: ‘Was this really the time to perfect a few cold pages of a novel when the upheavals in the living drama of his heart should have entirely taken him over?’ She begins to think he only wants her letters so that he can keep track of what’s new in Paris: ‘I was the daily gazette.’ Her novel is obviously rapidly written and rather undisciplined. One major digression involves Byron. Colet had become friends with Byron’s last mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, some years earlier, perhaps around the time Guiccioli was having an affair with Colet’s husband. In 1858, the English adventurer Edward John Trelawny published Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron, a book that infuriated Guiccioli. Now, as Colet was drafting her novel on Musset, Guiccioli begged her to include a long footnote correcting and condemning some of that book’s insulting references to Byron’s physique. This stops the narrative dead in its tracks, but somehow it only adds to the pleasure of this strange, energetic novel.

Graham Anderson’s translations of both Sand’s and Colet’s novels are faithful and highly readable, with short but helpful introductions. Both books have been translated before. Sand’s Elle et lui was translated by an American, George Burnham Ives (1856-1930), a man remarkable for having turned to literary translation while serving eight and a half years in a Boston prison for embezzlement and forgery. His translation was called She and He, and suffers from a stuffy, excessively formal prose style that doesn’t replicate Sand’s voice very well. Anderson’s translation is far better: his prose is tighter, better paced, more natural sounding, modern without being anachronistic.

Colet’s novel, Lui, was translated in 1986 by Marilyn Gaddis Rose as Lui: A View of Him, now out of print. Both Rose and Anderson provide excellent, responsible, readable translations. She does a better job with annotations, especially with regard to unlocking the roman à clef. Her notes will tell you, for example, that the minor character Duverger is the poet Béranger, and that Frémont is Buloz, editor of the Revue des deux mondes. Anderson provides notes for many cultural references and allusions, but not for these identifications. Even so, the new translation is welcome, both because the novel is a pleasure to read in his vigorous English version, and because it might help some readers to a new appreciation of Louise Colet herself, who deserves better treatment than she has been given by literary history. The Sand novel is for Sand completists. The Colet is for the rest of us.

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Vol. 45 No. 7 · 30 March 2023

I’m grateful to Raymond N. MacKenzie for his kind words about my translations of novels by George Sand and Louise Colet (LRB, 2 March). I did want to correct one error concerning Colet’s This Was the Man. MacKenzie writes of Marilyn Gaddis Rose’s translation of 1986 that she ‘does a better job with annotations, especially with regard to unlocking the roman à clef’. In fact, the poet Béranger, the editor Buloz, as well as the Deschamps brothers and Alfred de Vigny, are clearly identified in my introduction. The introduction deals with the roman à clef, the endnotes with extraneous matters. Colet’s long footnote on Byron, incidentally, is removed to the endnotes so that the narrative is not, unless the reader wishes, stopped dead in its tracks.

Graham Anderson
Witney, Oxfordshire

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